Australian copyright law: How to protect your work

- May 29, 2006 3 MIN READ

What would you do if you discovered your work had been reproduced without your permission? Here we look at the basics of Australian copyright law, including how to protect your work and what work can’t be protected.

Have you ever walked in the front door of your home to discover you have been burgled? Your personal items have been disturbed and there are items missing. You feel violated and angry. How dare someone come in and take your things?

It’s obvious when you have been burgled in your home, but it’s not so obvious when you have had your words or pictures stolen, from your website for example. Physically, nothing looks amiss.

It’s not unless you are browsing the web, or reading a brochure and you stumble across your words or pictures. Someone has stolen your work … but what can you do about it?

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Firstly, a little bit about Australian copyright law. For copyright protection to be put in place your work needs to be original (yours!) and it should be in a material form such as written down, recorded or on disk, it can’t be just floating around in your head.

While it is not necessary to place a copyright notice on your work, it is a good idea as it serves as a reminder to others that you have put in time, effort, skill and creativity to produce that piece of work.

An example of a copyright notice is;

© Norfolk Internet Group 2006

Australian copyright law protects many different items, including:

  • Literary works – books, reports and website content
  • Artistic works – paintings, drawings, photos and logos
  • Music
  • Dramatic works – scripts, screenplays and choreography
  • Film; Sound recordings and Broadcast – TV & Radio
  • Published editions – layout & typography, cover design.

Items not protected by copyright include:

  • Ideas
  • Information – generally available
  • Names, titles and slogans

Who owns copyright?

The creator of the material is the first owner of copyright. Copyright lasts for the life of the creator, plus 70 years. The creator of the work may choose to assign or license copyright to someone else. Copyright can also be left in your will to someone else.

If you hire a freelance copywriter to write material for you, by default they own copyright as the creator of the material unless you have a written agreement with them that copyright is transferred to you upon payment at the completion of the project. If the copywriter is employed on a permanent basis (as an employee) then the employer owns copyright. If you hire a casual or contract employee a copyright clause should be included in the employment agreement.

So if you are hiring someone else to write copy for you, you should always have a written agreement as to who owns copyright of the finished work. If this agreement is then infringed you can take legal action.

When do you need permission of the copyright owner?

You need permission of the copyright owner if you wish to use all or any substantial part of work which is copyright. (With or without a copyright notice).

A substantial part is an important, essential or distinctive part of the work. Remember everybody’s view on what is important, essential or distinctive varies.

You need permission of the copyright owner to:

  • Reproduce or copy the work (some exceptions apply to research or personal use)
  • Communicate that work to the public – including fax, email or use on the internet
  • Perform the work in public
  • Adapt, publish, rent or re-broadcast

If you find that you need to use a piece of material and you can’t find the copyright owner there are a number of collecting societies that can help you. The most common society is Copyright Agency Ltd,

You can purchase individual or blanket licenses. These collecting societies are non-profit and have copyright owners as their members.

What can you do if you think someone has infringed on your copyright?

  • Check if it really is an infringement – is it a substantial part of your work or just using the underlying ideas? Ideas are not copyright.
  • Check if there are any outstanding contractual issues between you and them.
  • Contact the person and ask them if they know they have infringed on your copyright. Try to commence informal negotiations where you may ask for a fee or retraction. If you are the creator and first owner of copyright of the work, then you may be able to receive some assistance in this area from the Australian Copyright Council.
  • Letter of demand – see a solicitor to have a letter of demand drafted, from here on in, is where you will begin to spend larger sums of money to fight your case.
  • Court Action – via the Federal Magistrates Court – is your last avenue.

If the shoe is on the other foot and you are contacted by a copyright owner, you need to check if you have infringed on their copyright and find out if they really are the copyright owner. If you receive a letter of demand, contact a solicitor immediately.

Basically to protect yourself from infringing on someone else’s copyright, use your own material or get permission to use material and purchase royalty free images from a reputable image library. Don’t steal someone else’s work… yes it’s a big wide world out there, but at times it can be remarkably small.

More information, fact sheets and books are available from The Australian Copyright Council:

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"